Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder

What could she possibly be looking at?
Knowing my fondness for anything related to the female perspective, friends recently pointed me in the direction of  an article in The Telegraph which paints a depressing picture of female self-esteem. According to a survey conducted by Dove Skincare, only one in every eight women (just 13%) are confident enough to call themselves attractive.

The article (posted on Facebook, naturally) led to an interesting discussion in which we mulled over the pressures women face in attempting to conform to the images presented by society (and the beauty industry) as "the feminine ideal" while trying to maintain a modicum of self-esteem.

It was while discussing my own inner-directed sense of self-esteem that something occurred to me: 

Women everywhere are constantly compared to a mysterious "feminine ideal", whether it's society making the comparison or ourselves. We're too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall, too dark or too light. We're also too emotional, too volatile, too dependent, too independent, too quiet, too loud, too serious, not serious enough, too prim and too liberated. 

We are just simply too much. 

It's a zero-sum game that we can never ever win. Unless, of course, we refuse to play. Herein lies my strategy for dealing with the myriad and constantly shifting mass of expectations that I can feel tugging at me from one direction or another: I simply cannot be bothered to really care. Not about what society thinks that I should be nor what advertisements say I should look like nor how movies say I should act.

Easier said than done, I know. How does one shake off a lifetime of conditioning? Trust me, wasn't nearly as easy as it sounds.

I grew up as a freakishly tall and impossibly awkward gap-toothed girl. In my group of friends, who all fit - in one way or another - the standard feminine mold with which we were bombarded on a daily basis, I was the tall stand-out. 

And not in a good way. 

I joined the JV basketball team, but not because I had any real talent. The coach waylaid me during gym one day and told me that - while he could teach skill - he couldn't teach height. Thus, I became starting center of the SBHS girls' JV team for one (mercifully short) season. 

As I gradually grew into my height (though never out of the awkwardness), Previously disinterested guys began paying attention. Of course, I preferred the taller fellas, many of whom were quick to tell me that - while they thought I was pretty - I was just too tall. One even went to the trouble of explaining that, though he was taller than I, he wasn't comfortable dating a girl who could look him directly in the eye. Sweet.

Nevertheless, I rarely gave much conscious thought to my height, as there wasn't much I could do about it. Still, every single photo of me from that era features a deep slouch in an effort not to completely tower over everyone else in the picture. I also never wore heels or skirts except for very special occasions. Like graduation.

My mother, presumably in an effort to boost my abysmal self-esteem, encouraged me to try modelling. That went about as well as you'd expect it to for an awkward and camera-shy teen, but what sticks out the most was the casting agent who advised me to "fix" the gap in my front teeth because no one aside from The United Colors of Benetton would be interested in such a "diverse" look. Not a confidence booster, but the fact that I never once considered getting braces for my straight, albeit gapped teeth made me feel a little better about myself.

So what changed? Strangely enough, the move to Trinidad and Tobago gave me a much-needed dose of perspective on the whole "ideal female" conundrum. In Trinidad, women of all shapes, sizes, and colors are considered beautiful. Hardly a woman can walk down the street without being "sooted" (or "complimented", for my non-Trini readers) at least once and Trini men are famously vocal about what they like. I'd barely stepped off of the plane before I was hearing about my long legs, "sweet" gapped teeth, "red" skin and "luscious" lips. Those would be the same legs, teeth, skin and lips that often weren't enough to overcome my overpowering height back home.

Did the attention give me an ego boost? Sure. More importantly, it helped me to realize the arbitrariness of all of the standards to which we women hold ourselves world-wide. In America, the "ideal" standard of beauty is thin, fair-skinned and light-eyed with long straight (usually blond) hair, which some women go to extreme lengths to attain. In certain African countries (where extra food is scarce enough to be a luxury), thick and curvy women are the ideal and fat camps are an accepted way of getting there. The Padaung of Burma stretch their necks with gold rings to attain their feminine ideal, while pre-twentieth-century Chinese women agonizingly bound their feet to be attractive.

These standards - many of which are painful (and dangerous) to attain - are simultaneously at the root of our problems and  completely irrelevant to them. What's important is how we react to them. By attempting to conform, we give them power. By yielding to the suggestion that men would like us more if we were thinner or thicker or shorter or taller or had the right skin color or hair texture, we set ourselves up for misery while encouraging and propagating the same standards that are making us miserable in the first place. So long as we allow our own personal standards of beauty to come from outside of ourselves, we can never be happy.

What I've learned is that I'm infinitely better off after accepting that I am what I am. 

Simple, but powerful, if you think about it. 

I'll never be short enough to fit the ideal in the country in which I was raised, nor will I be light enough. My hair could be straight enough, but it wouldn't be as healthy. I could be skinny enough, but then I'd have to forego the roti, doubles and macaroni pie that I enjoy so much. 

At any rate, why should I? What would be the point of getting on the beauty industry's hamster wheel of "self-improvement"? It's much easier (not to mention healthier) to accept that I'm beautiful just the way I am, even if I never have an ass like Nicki Minaj or abs like a Victoria's Secret model. 

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